LONG-TERM UPDATE 4 | Our Suzuki Jimny five-door tracks down the oldest railway tunnel in South Africa

17 May 2024 - 11:47
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Our Suzuki Jimny five-door catches a breather at the mouth of the 1876 Hex River Pass railway tunnel.
Our Suzuki Jimny five-door catches a breather at the mouth of the 1876 Hex River Pass railway tunnel.
Image: Thomas Falkiner

During my recent visit to the Western Cape I decided to put my Jimny Drive training to the test on a mission to a special place hidden in the Hex River mountains.

I first became aware of the abandoned Hex River Pass railway tunnel — built in 1876 — when my friend and 4x4 enthusiast Dieter Pey uploaded photographs of it to his Instagram account. Accompanied by a YouTube video, this lonely artefact from a bygone era struck a chord with me and I knew I had to visit and experience it for myself.

On private land and accessible only with a 4x4 vehicle, it’s best to explore the tunnel with a guide, and as Pey has been through it many times (his off-road tours business specialises in this sort of thing) I enlisted his services for the day.

After meeting in Paarl early one Sunday morning, we drive in convoy to Wellington for a quick coffee at the Tannery Cars Motor Museum after which we meander up and over the recently resurfaced Bainskloof Pass en route to the Veldskoen Padstal on the N1 after De Doorns. After dropping our tyre pressure for the off-road trail (I went from the road-rated 1.8 bar down to 1.4 bar), we leave the farm stall's car park and make tracks through the nearby Impangele Mountain Lodge: the launching pad to the many locomotive secrets hidden in the arid Karoo landscape ahead of us.

The author follows guide Pey down a section of jeep track leading away from Impangele Mountain Lodge.
The author follows guide Pey down a section of jeep track leading away from Impangele Mountain Lodge.
Image: Thomas Falkiner

The first few kilometres of the adventure steers us down easy dirt roads, but soon Pey stops and over his walkie-talkie introduces our first gnarly obstacle of the day: an uncomfortably steep left-to-right drop-off linking our convoy to a scraggly looking jeep track that will transport us to the valley below. Made trickier by quite an exaggerated side slope, I get out and walk it first to make sure I know what the Jimny and I are in for.

Following Pey’s instructions, I select low-range and initiate hill descent control for extra peace of mind. Fortunately it looks harder than it is and we’re soon on our way again, maintaining a gentle pace and enjoying the vistas unfolding through our windscreens. 

It is along this section of the trip I learn the benefit of the Suzuki’s relatively narrow width (from door skin to door skin 1,405mm). Out in the wilderness where trails like this don’t see much action, foliage can start to grow over the shoulder of the jeep tracks and rub against your bodywork, causing what the off-roading fraternity refers to as “bush rash”. Sometimes this can be buffed out with polish and wax, other times it can’t.

While Pey’s burly Toyota Hilux can do nothing about it, the skinny Jimny does remarkably well at avoiding the impeding Karoo scrub. What vegetation makes contact with the Suzuki is shrugged off by its swollen black plastic wheel arch mouldings. Though the latter seem to scratch a bit too easily for my liking, it’s better than having to deal with scuffed paint. Specially metallic black paint, which shows imperfections easily and probably isn’t the best choice for people who plan to go off-roading regularly.  

Part of the route involved driving along a disused section of railway track.
Part of the route involved driving along a disused section of railway track.
Image: Thomas Falkiner

I follow Pey down the valley, keeping my eye open for danger lurking in the lush “middle mannetjie”, that vegetative ridge separating the sandy wheel ruts of the jeep track.

Despite my slow speed and caution, I hear the scraping sound of metal on rock and stop to see what I’ve hit. After peering under the chassis I discover I’ve grazed the outer edge of the left front radial arm cup against a rogue piece of stone I failed to spot (sorry Suzuki SA). Fortunately the damage is cosmetic and we can keep moving. It turns out these radial arm cups are fairly exposed to the elements, so much so that a number of third party Jimny parts suppliers are manufacturing steel protectors that bolt over them to prevent incidents such as this. They’re well-priced and something I would fit to my own Jimny as a form of cheap insurance. 

Continuing in silent rage (I hate damaging vehicles), I need to put this mishap behind me as it’s time to concentrate and tackle the next obstacle: a roughly 80m crawl across a section of defunct railway line. Leading to our destination, it is of the common narrow or “Cape” gauge with a track of 1,067mm, 368mm less than the standard gauge railway used around the world. With Pey acting as my spotter, he instructs me to drive with my left wheels on the dirt and my right wheels on the offside rail.

Once in position I follow his hand signals and slowly inch my way along this vehicular tightrope. It’s a teeth-gritting experience, one that causes tiny bullets of perspiration to fire from my forehead as I focus on not slipping off the 12.7mm wide section of track.

The Jimny's narrow width is beneficial for avoiding 'bush rash.'
The Jimny's narrow width is beneficial for avoiding 'bush rash.'
Image: Dieter Pey

According to the onboard computer it’s 34ºC outside and despite being set to low the AC seems to be struggling to keep the cabin cool. I put this down to the heat absorbing black paint and the fact we have been ambling along at walking pace for nearly an hour. 

Once I get to the end of the line without messing anything up — a huge relief — and follow Pey down another steep side slope to a gravel service road, the pace picks up and the Jimny can breathe a bit better as we close in on the tunnel. The obstacles peppering this section of the route are considerably less challenging, apart from a sticky section of mud and some sporadic road erosion (recent Karoo rains have carved out mini caverns that require caution), there is little else to raise our collective heart rate.

Eventually, after curling up a gentle ascent we round a corner and there, looming large in the early afternoon light, stands the 148-year-old relic. Narrower than I thought it would be, the portal of the Hex River Pass railway tunnel is dressed in simple stone masonry that’s almost camouflage against the rocky cliff face surrounding it.

Beyond this weathered aperture lies a perfectly straight shaft running through 180m of solid Hexton hillside. I park the Jimny and walk inside for a closer look, where I discover an eerie subterranean passage with unlined walls, a jagged corridor of darkness home to a family of owls and whatever other hidden creatures are attracted to its shaded sanctity. 

Above, running down the centre of the tapered ceiling, is a perfect white stripe burnt into the rock from years of superheated exhaust blasted out the chimneys of passing steam locomotives that used to serve this route. In that pioneering period of South African history this compact tunnel provided a crucial step up to the Karoo plateau and a link to strike it rich destinations such as Kimberley and Johannesburg. Once a highlight of the journey, today it stands hollow and silent and empty, a forgotten conduit of ghosts. 

There’s a lot more history to marvel at here. After 53 years of service, the original Hex River Pass railway tunnel was replaced by a wider, more modern version designed to accommodate larger locomotives. Opened in 1929, it shares a wall with its older twin and served the line until 1989. Railway tracks still cross its floor, making it tricky to navigate by vehicle. As the original is free from such obstacles, the Jimny and I are able to follow Pey through it en route to the final surprise of the afternoon. 

About a kilometre from the tunnel exit lies a deserted station known simply as Tunnel.

Though it’s challenging to find much — if any — information about this place, it served as a passing loop where downhill trains could safely yield to uphill trains. In its heyday permanently staffed by a station master, foreman, gangers and patrolmen, Tunnel was also a place where train crews could cool their brakes, take water and rid their furnaces of clinker, a stony residue from burnt coal that reduced performance.

Made redundant after the railways transitioned from steam to electricity in the late 1940s to early 1950s, not much of Tunnel exists today other than signage boards and a concrete water holding tank. Over the years eco tourists erected makeshift structures for camping expeditions (braai/ablution facilities), most of which have also fallen into disrepair. But, and to steal a line from a cherished film, there can be no true beauty without decay.  

There is a profound melancholy to this place, this crumbling monument to a simpler time in human history when life moved slower and news and experiences were shared via mailbags, not megabytes. Conversely, it is also a sobering reminder of how difficult it used to be getting from point A to B, specially in a country with such challenging topography.

For all the ills of the modern world it’s phenomenal how we can climb into a motor vehicle and with comparatively little effort visit and traverse almost any area we want, when we want. The Jimny five-door is testament to this. While it might not be the most powerful or highest riding off-roader money can buy, its compact proportions and easy, forgiving nature make it the perfect platform to get out and explore places such as the Hex River Pass railway tunnel, and in doing so remind ourselves how far we have come.

2024 Suzuki Jimny 1.5 GLX MT five-door | Update 4





PRAISES: Again, the Jimny five-door impresses with its go-anywhere, do-anything capability. Narrow width beneficial for avoiding “bush rash” on painted surfaces. Light and confidence-inspiring out on real world 4x4 trails.

GRIPES: Radial arm cups seem susceptible to damage. AC struggles a bit when moving slowly in hot weather. Black paint not a good colour choice for regular off-roading.

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